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Against Apologism: Critiquing the Left’s Flirtation with Stalinism

Some on the modern left have engaged in 'apologism' for oppressive regimes, whether whitewashing Stalin's crimes or reflexively supporting authoritarian "anti-imperialist" states. This post argues that defending past and present authoritarianism fundamentally contradicts core progressive principles of liberation, democracy, and human rights.

Introduction

A troubling phenomenon continues with some self-described leftists and even progressives defending or downplaying the oppressive nature of Stalin’s Soviet regime. This so-called “Stalinist nostalgia” involves whitewashing the USSR’s history of purges, gulags, secret police, censorship, and totalitarian control. Similarly, some on the left embrace a form of “campism”: blanket support for modern authoritarian states like China, Russia or Iran solely because they oppose US hegemony. This post argues that apologising for past and present authoritarianism stands fundamentally opposed to core left principles of liberation, democracy, and human rights.

Stalinist Nostalgia as Historical Revisionism

Modern Stalinist revisionism involves a highly selective reading of Soviet history to portray Stalin’s regime as egalitarian, anti-imperialist, and leading an ideal socialist project (Gorin, 2018). Apologists downplay or ignore the Red Terror, Holodomor, the gulag system of forced labour camps, and Stalin’s mass executions and purges, which killed millions. They reinvent the USSR as a paragon of social justice against the evidence of its political repression, ethnic cleansing, aggressive imperialism, and other documented abuses (Applebaum, 2004). This romanticised Stalinism clashes with historical reality.

Modern Stalinist revisionism involves a highly selective reading of Soviet history to portray Stalin’s regime as egalitarian, anti-imperialist, and leading an ideal socialist project

(Gorin, 2018)

This neo-Stalinist outlook also relies on the myth of Stalin’s indispensability in defeating Nazism or driving Soviet industrialisation. However, Stalin’s purging of experts and incompetent leadership arguably harmed the USSR’s war preparedness. Similarly, Stalin built upon Lenin and Trotsky’s earlier economic programmes without inventing rapid industrialisation (Davies, 1990). Neo-Stalinists thus misattribute historical processes to Stalin’s personal genius while ignoring the enormous human and theoretical costs.

Authoritarian Apologism as Betrayal of Left Principles

More broadly, embracing any authoritarian state just because it opposes US hegemony contradicts leftist commitments to liberation, democracy, and human rights. Supporting present-day authoritarian “camps” like Iran, Syria, Russia, or China in an anti-imperialist reflex glorifies state oppression of the very people the left aims to emancipate.

Supporting present-day authoritarian “camps” like Iran, Syria, Russia, or China in an anti-imperialist reflex glorifies state oppression of the very people the left aims to emancipate.

This “campist” thinking also treats entire nations as political monoliths. China, Iran, or Russia are multi-faceted countries, not solely their governments. Backing authoritarian rulers violates true internationalism, which builds solidarity between people, not states. Moreover, critiquing US imperialism need not imply an apology for its global opponents. We can oppose all imperialism and all dictatorships consistently.

Holding up former or current one-party dictatorships as emancipatory is anachronistic. Socialism must be fundamentally democratic to give power to workers, not parties or strongmen.

The Ends Do Not Justify Oppressive Means

Underpinning neo-Stalinism is the belief that building socialism justifies authoritarian means. But this is ethically misguided. Systems utilising mass imprisonment, secret police, censorship, or the elimination of civil liberties are inherently oppressive. The ends cannot justify oppressive means, as this thinking leads to the justification of increasingly totalitarian regimes. If we accept denying core freedoms as a suitable cost for political projects, human rights cease to have inherent value. This is antithetical to the left’s foundational principals.

Systems utilising mass imprisonment, secret police, censorship, or the elimination of civil liberties are inherently oppressive. The ends cannot justify oppressive means, as this thinking leads to the justification of increasingly totalitarian regimes.

Equally problematic is framing debates as binary choices between either Stalin’s totalitarianism or unchecked capitalism. This is a false dichotomy. We can critique capitalism’s excesses without glorifying some of its opponents. There exist nuanced middle grounds upholding core socialist values of equality, worker empowerment, and social provision while rejecting authoritarianism. Figures like Rosa Luxemburg provide models blending socialism, democracy, and ethical consistency. We must avoid false binaries rationalising unjust systems in pursuing social progress.

Figures like Rosa Luxemburg provide models blending socialism, democracy, and ethical consistency. We must avoid false binaries rationalising unjust systems in pursuing social progress.

Learning Historical Lessons

Rethinking the left’s relationship to past and present authoritarianism is critical for moving forward. We should acknowledge the USSR’s real achievements, like mass literacy and rapid industrialisation, without whitewashing its severe abuses. We must also stand firmly in opposition when contemporary “socialist” states commit human rights violations, no matter their professed ideology or geopolitical alignment.

The left’s goal should be a socialism rooted in democracy, pluralism, and human liberation. Authoritarianism of any kind is incompatible with these basic values. If the left again becomes an apologist for oppression, we repeat historical mistakes and ethical contradictions. Only by learning from the brutal legacies of Stalin and other dictators can the left build a just world where freedom and human dignity are universal rights and not restricted behind iron curtains and prison walls.

The left’s goal should be a socialism rooted in democracy, pluralism, and human liberation. Authoritarianism of any kind is incompatible with these basic values.

Conclusion

This post has argued that defending Stalin’s repressive regime or contemporary authoritarian states are both historically inaccurate and ethically untenable for the left. Whitewashing the USSR’s abuses, glorifying oppressive policies, or justifying human rights violations in the name of anti-imperialism betrays core progressive principles. We must critique capitalism and imperialism without embracing their authoritarian opposites. True socialism is as a liberator, not a repressor. The left should focus on systems expanding democracy and empowering civil society, not resurrecting past totalitarian logics or campist binaries. If we ignore history’s difficult lessons, progressivism loses its meaning and moral anchor.

We must critique capitalism and imperialism without embracing their authoritarian opposites. True socialism is as a liberator, not a repressor.

References

Applebaum, A. (2004). Gulag: A History. Anchor

Davies, R.W. (1990) From Tsarism to the New Economic Policy: Continuity and Change in the Economy of the USSR Macmillan Press.

Gorin, Z. (2018). Towards a New Socialist Realism. Historical Materialism, 26(2), 27–59.


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